Nitrous oxide fuel blend

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Nitrous Oxide Fuel Blend propellants are a class of liquid rocket propellants intended to replace hydrazine as the standard rocket fuel. The fuel and oxidizer are blended and stored; this is sometimes referred to as a mixed monopropellant. Upon use, the propellant is heated or passed over a catalyst bed and the nitrous oxide decomposes into oxygen-rich gasses. Combustion then ensues. Special care is needed in the chemical formulation and engine design to prevent detonating the stored fuel.


The agent used for rocket fuel in a shuttle is paramount; weight, thrust, cost, toxicity, risk of explosions and other problems make it important for scientists to design rockets with appropriate propellants. The major classes of rocket fuels are:

A common fuel in small maneuvering thrusters is hydrazine. It is liquid at room temperature and, having a positive enthalpy of formation, can be used as a monopropellant to greatly simplify system design. But it is also extremely toxic and has a relatively high freezing point of +1C. It is also unstable, an inherent property of any substance with a positive enthalpy of formation.

Nitrous oxide can be used as an oxidizer with various fuels; it is popular mainly in hybrid rockets. It is far less toxic than hydrazine and has a much lower boiling point, though it can be liquified at room temperature under pressure. Like hydrazine it has a positive enthalpy of formation that makes it both potentially unstable and a viable monopropellant. It can be decomposed with a catalyst to produce a hot mixture of nitrogen and oxygen.[1] When mixed with a fuel and stored before use, it becomes a mixed monopropellant.[citation needed]


German rocket scientists were experimenting with nitrous oxide fuel blends as early as 1937. Nitrous oxide fuel blends testing continued throughout World War II. The promise of high performance, greater range and lighter feed systems drove experimentation with blends of nitrous oxide and ammonia, which resulted in numerous explosions and demolished motors.[2] The complexities involved in building propulsion systems that can safely handle nitrous oxide fuel blend monopropellants have been a deterrent to serious development.

Innovative Space Propulsion Systems[edit]

A NOFBX flight test mission has been planned since 2011. Innovative Space Propulsion Systems announced plans to test the NOFBX mono-propellant on the NASA portion of the International Space Station (ISS), with an initial tentative flight date of late 2012.[3] NASA formally approved the mission to the ISS on a 2013 launch slot in May 2012.[4] This mission has since been removed from the launch manifest and has not yet been rescheduled.

The mission had been scheduled to travel to the ISS in the unpressurized cargo compartment of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft during one of the contracted NASA cargo re-supply missions in mid-2013. The "ISPS NOFBX Green Propellant Demonstration" will utilize a deep-throttling 100 pounds-force (440 N)-thrust-class engine burning NOFBX rocket engine that will be mounted to the outside the European Columbus module on the ISS, and is expected to remain on-orbit for approximately one year as it undergoes a "series of in-space performance tests."[5]



NOFBX is the trademarked name for a proprietary nitrous oxide/fuel/emulsifier blended mono-propellant developed by Firestar Technologies.[6] The NOFBX patent claims a mixture of nitrous oxide as the oxidizer with ethane, ethene or acetylene as the fuel.[8] NOFBX has a higher specific impulse (Isp) and is less toxic than other monopropellants currently used in space applications, such as hydrazine. Flight testing of NOFBX engines is planned[needs update] on the International Space Station in 2012.[7]

NOFBX has been used to fuel a reciprocating engine to power high-altitude, long-endurance drone aircraft under a DARPA contract.[1]

NOFBX is being promoted[by whom?] as a "game changing" technology[3] with the following characteristics:

  • constituents are widely available from chemical suppliers, inexpensive and safe to handle[3]
  • can be transported and handled without undue precautions or hazards[3]
  • its end products (N
    , CO, H
    , H
    and CO
    )[8] are all nontoxic (except carbon monoxide; carbon dioxide is toxic above ~8%) and produce no accumulated deposits or contamination;[3] whereas hydrazine emits ammonia[8]
  • hydrazine has an Isp of about 230 s; NOFBX has an Isp of 300 s[8]
  • has far better lift capability (energy density 3.5 to 3.9 times greater) than hydrazine[8]
  • is tolerant to a wide thermal range; storable at room temperature on the ground as well as in temperatures found in outer space[7]
  • (is projected to) lower cost compared to existing propulsion systems of comparable performance[3]
  • is a monopropellant, which significantly reduces the need for auxiliary hardware, saving cost, volume, and mass for launch systems
  • utilizes cool running thrusters that dramatically reduce thermal design challenges[further explanation needed]
  • burns in liquid, gas, and two-phase flow[7][further explanation needed]
  • does not have the materials compatibility constraints of traditional hypergolic systems (a system in which the fuel ignites upon contact with the oxidizer)[3]

Safety Concerns[edit]

Recent work on the decomposition of nitrous oxide has raised concerns about the safety risks of mixing hydrocarbons with nitrous oxide. By adding hydrocarbons, the barrier to an explosive decomposition event is lowered significantly.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Joiner, Stephen (May 1, 2011). "The Mojave Launch Lab". Air & Space Smithsonian. Retrieved March 18, 2011.  (online publication date precedes print edition)
  2. ^ Clark, John D. (1972). Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-0725-5. [page needed]
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Messier, Doug (August 9, 2011). "A Non-Toxic Fuel From the Mojave Desert". Parabolic Arc. Archived from the original on October 7, 2011. Retrieved August 9, 2011. 
  4. ^ Morring, Frank, Jr. (May 21, 2012). "SpaceX To Deliver Green-Propulsion Testbed To ISS". Aviation Week and Space Technology. Retrieved May 24, 2012. (Subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ "ISS-bound Propellant Demo Passes NASA Safety Review". Space News. May 29, 2012. p. 9. Retrieved June 26, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Firestar Technologies • Advanced Chemical Propulsion and Power Systems". Retrieved December 30, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c "NOFBX Monopropulsion Overview" (PDF). Firestar Technologies. Feb 9, 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 24, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d "NITROUS OXIDE FUEL BLEND MONOPROPELLANTS - Patent application". Patent Docs. Retrieved December 30, 2013. 
  9. ^ Karabeyoglu, A. (2008). "Modeling of N2O Decomposition Events". American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. 44th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference & Exhibit. Hartford, CT: Aerospace Research Central. doi:10.2514/6.2008-4933. (Subscription required (help)). 

Further reading[edit]

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